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Can You Create Out of Body Experiences?

I once woke up floating in the corner of another room of the house--by the cieling. After looking around a bit I was suddenly back in bed opening my eyes. I don't consider it to be anything more than a mental phenomenon, but what's really happening when people have out-of-body experiences? There have been two studies published in recent years that shed some light on possible explanations. They are "The Experimental Induction of Out-of-Body Experiences" by H. Henrik Ehrsson and "Video Ergo Sum: Manipulating Bodily Self-Consciousness" by Bigna Lenggenhager et al. Both were published in Science, in August, 2007.

To better understand why people sometimes have the illusion that they are floating above their bodies or otherwise separated from them, these neuroscientists decided to reproduce out-of-body experiences in a laboratory setting. They did not want to do this by inducing strokes, epileptic fits, migraines or other common precursors to the experiences, nor by having subjects take drugs. Instead, they played with subjects normal perceptions using cameras and video goggles.

Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, had subjects sit and use special goggles to look at a stereocopic view of their own backs, the images coming from cameras set up behind them. He touched the subjects chests with a rod while stabbing at a point below and in front of the two cameras behind them, at what would corresponded to the "virtual chest" of each. Subjects reported that as a result of this, they felt like they were sitting two meters behind where they actually were.

Bigna Lenggenhager and her colleagues at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, did experiments that were similar. Cameras were placed a couple meters behind each participant, who were wearing 3-D video goggles to see the images from the cameras. Experimenters stroked their backs with a pen so the subjects could see and feel it at the same time. They then had the subjects move, and when told to return to their previous position, they erred in the direction of their "virtual" bodies by an average of ten inches. Then the cameras were aimed at the back of a mannequin. Participants said they felt as though the body of the mannequin was their own body.

Both studies show how easy it is to fool the brain. Further research may help to clarify how information from both the eyes and the skin are used to determine one's location in space. Apparently this information can be mis-processed by the brain when we are ill or on drugs, leading to what seem to be out-of-body experiences. Of course, since people are not usually wearing video goggles during these times, the experiences also suggest the power of our imaginations to create a scene as it would appear if we were actually in another location.

The most immediate application of the research is not likely to be in preventing or explaining out-of-body experiences, though. Ehrsson and others suggest that it will be used to make better video games. With these experiments they are learning how to make virtual reality feel more real.


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